Scripture Readings: Acts: 1:6-14, John 20:1-18
The apostles we know about, the disciples of Jesus and also Paul, are men. Yet, the New Testament is filled with women, who worked closely with the apostles. In Acts 1:14 we find a description of the disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem, "together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus." Contrary to Jewish tradition, which kept the sexes separate, the disciples and the women leaders of the first church were gathered together, in the room where the disciples were staying, "constantly devoting themselves to prayer."
Later in Acts 16:13-15 we find Paul and Silas visiting a women’s prayer group that met on Sunday outside the gate of Philippi by the river. Paul converts Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, and she invites Paul and Silas to come and stay in her home. In Romans 16:1 Paul commends to the church in Rome a woman named Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, who has been a great benefactor of his and of many others working for the church. In Romans 16:3-4 Paul asks the Christians in Rome to give his greetings to Prisca and Aquilla, who Paul says: "Work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles." Prisca is called Priscilla in Acts 18:2-3. With her husband, she has come from Rome to Corinth to help support Paul’s mission there. Similarly, in Colossians 4:15 Paul gives greetings "to Nympha and the church in her house."
Having seen that women are active in the life of the early church during the ministry of Paul, which is roughly the 40s and 50s, we should not be surprised to find women playing key rolls in the gospels stories, which were probably written in the 70s and 80s. In Mark 15:40-41 we read that at the crucifixion of Jesus: "There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem." Jesus is traveling with women, and they are caring for him and the disciples.
The same statement appears in Matthew 27:55-56 although in this gospel Joses is called Joseph. James and Joses (or Joseph) are brothers of Jesus, and we know from church history that they and another brother of Jesus named Judas, who is called Jude in the New Testament letter by that name, were leaders of the first church in Jerusalem. In Acts 1:14, we found Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her sons, in the upper room in Jerusalem with the disciples (now apostles). Almost hidden within the New Testament is the fact that the family of Jesus – his mother and at least three of his brothers – are active leaders in the church after his death. Moreover, his mother and other women are essential in supporting the ministry of Jesus, his brothers, and his disciples.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke contain birth stories of Jesus, and the gospel of Luke begins with the wonderful story of two women, Mary and her relative, Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth rejoice in the quickening of life within their wombs, and Luke 1:46-55 records Mary's song of praise to the Lord, known to many as "The Magnificat" because of its opening word in Latin. In the birth story in the gospel of Matthew, the angel comes to Joseph and wise men come from the East to witness to the birth. In the gospel of Luke, however, the angel comes to Mary, and Elizabeth bears witness to God’s gift of life to them both. We should not be surprised later in the gospel of Luke to find that women were traveling with Jesus and providing for the disciples "out of their resources." Luke 8:2-3 identifies three of these women as "Mary Magdalene and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna." Luke 10:38-42 relates that Jesus also received support from Mary and Martha, when he visited their home.
John 11:1-44 describes a visit by Jesus to Mary and Martha in Bethany in order to raise their brother Lazarus from the dead. And John 12:1-8 tells of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with costly perfume, while he is eating at her home in Bethany. Luke 7:36-50 tells a similar story about a woman anointing the feet of Jesus, while he is eating dinner in the house of a Pharisee. The woman is said to be a sinner, which has been interpreted in this story to mean a prostitute, but it might simply mean that she has failed to keep the dietary restrictions of Jewish law. Whatever her sins, Jesus forgives them because of her faith. The church has identified this sinful woman as Mary of Magdala, better known as Mary Magdalene. Yet, nowhere in the New Testament do we read that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, who reformed her life. Instead, in Luke 8:2 we learn that seven demons were exorcised from Mary Magdalene. She was healed by Jesus of the evil spirits possessing her, which may have been interpreted as her sin.
In the gospel of John the ministry of Jesus begins in Cana, where Jesus and his mother attend a wedding (John 2:1-11). Afterwards, John 2:12 tells us, Jesus "went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples." John 4:7-42 relates the story of Jesus in Samaria and his lengthy discussion with a Samaritan woman by the well of Jacob. In the fourth gospel she is the first witness to Jesus among non-Jews – that is, among Samaritans and other Gentiles.
John 20:1-18 records that Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the risen Lord. In the other New Testament gospels, at least two women come to the tomb on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion. The names vary, but one of the women named in each gospel is Mary Magdalene. In the gospel of Mark, she is accompanied by Salome and "Mary the mother of James," referring to James the brother of Jesus (Mk. 16:1). In the gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene is accompanied by "the other Mary" (Mt. 28:1), which might mean Mary the mother of Jesus, James, Joses and Jude (Judas) or some other Mary. In the gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb with "Joanna, Mary the mother of James (the brother of Jesus), and the other women with them" (Lk. 24:10).
In the gospel of John, however, Mary Magdalene comes alone. When she finds the tomb empty, she runs to tell Peter; and he and another disciple return with her to verify her testimony. After the men leave, she alone has the first vision of the risen Lord. At a time and in a culture that required two women witnesses to equal the testimony of one man, this story has a remarkable twist. Two men leave without seeing the risen Christ, whereas one woman remains and sees "the Lord" and receives from him a message that she is to deliver to his disciples.
Mary Magdalene is a remarkable figure in the life of early church. Yet, it is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who has had the greatest impact on visual representations of the New Testament story in Western art. Protestants are often less aware of this than Catholic and Orthodox Christians, because historically Protestants have stripped their churches of such images in order to reduce the likelihood of idolatry. Nonetheless, anyone who has visited cathedrals in Europe or looked at Western religious paintings and sculpture in museums is struck by the almost ubiquitous presence of Mary. We see the young woman Mary being visited by an angel, the pregnant Mary riding on a donkey to Bethlehem, the mother Mary holding the baby Jesus, the grieving older Mary at the foot of the cross. These powerful images pervade our culture. Moreover, at least in Catholic and Orthodox spirituality, the presence of Mary may offset for many believers the prevailing patriarchal character of Christian worship and ecclesiastical authority.
May 12, 2002